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“Your walls and armies have fallen! And now it's your turn! Bow to me!”
Shan Yu is the main antagonist of Disney's 1998 animated feature film, Mulan. He is the evil leader of the Hun Army, responsible for mass genocide across China. When the emperor commissions the Great Wall to deter invaders, Shan Yu views this as a challenge and declares war on his majesty, with intent of taking over the country.
Shan Yu is in great contrast with his predecessors and successors. While he shows the same arrogant and megalomaniacal traits, he is not above killing his enemies in cold blood to prove his strength and he has been shown to make jokes about it: after capturing two Imperial scouts and sending them to deliver his challenge to the Emperor, he asks his lead archer how many men it takes to deliver a message. The archer then draws his bow and replies, "One." Ultimately, only one scout delivers the message, heavily implying that the archer killed the other. He is also shown to be merciless even to defenseless individuals, as evidenced by his murderous smirk when he suggests that he "return" a lost doll to its owner, as well as being implied to have killed the owner of the doll as well as her entire village. His penchant for brutality was such that the Emperor of China immediately took the matter seriously as soon as he learned that Shan Yu was leading the invasion, and one of the captured scouts fearfully recognized him when they were brought before him. Despite his brutality, or probably because of it, he is a respected leader, as his Hun army seems to be kept together out of loyalty to him, rather than out of fear of him. This is exemplified by his Elite Huns, who are able to speak to him on equal terms. A deleted scene showing his massacre of the village onscreen, however, makes clear that he is not above slaying even members of his own army should they show any degree of weakness in battle, in particular showing mercy towards any living thing (though he does acknowledge all life deserves to be free, he also makes clear that freedom has its price after subtly ordering Hayabusa to attack the freed bird). He is also shown to never ill treat or abuse Hayabusa his pet falcon, meaning he may care and have attachment to him. This also likely means he is not completely incapable of caring about others but only about those who he considers very close to him.
Shan Yu is also supremely confident in both his and his army's strength and superiority, sometimes allowing his enemies the advantage in order to prove his might. Such examples include his attack on the Great Wall, where he allowed a lone sentry to light the signal fire, sending word to the Emperor and giving him time to mobilize the Imperial Army. Later, he allows one of the Chinese spies to return to the Forbidden City, boldly telling the spy to inform the Emperor to send his best troops to face the Huns. In this instance, he even claims that the Emperor "invited" him, viewing the construction of the Great Wall as a challenge to his army's might. He also decides to head straight for the mountain pass that would lead his forces directly to the Forbidden City, knowing full well that the entire Imperial Vanguard is guarding the pass and completely rejecting the option to simply go around the mountains and avoid the enemy entirely. As he and his men were later revealed to have managed to completely wipe out the entire Vanguard presumably without any significant casualties at his end, this confidence may have been perfectly justified. Even after being buried under an avalanche, he took it in stride (outside of letting out a loud yell) and simply improvised, using his "deceased" status and decreased army to infiltrate the palace.
Shan Yu is also notable for being one of the extreme few characters in the movie who does not underestimate women. As soon as he recognizes that Mulan is "the soldier from the mountains", he forgets about Li Shang, considering him to be insignificant in comparison, and tries to kill Mulan instead.
Shan Yu is gigantic and muscular. He is mustachioed in a thin horseshoe style. He possesses yellow eyes with black sclera, pale gray skin, sharp nose, and a prominent forehead. His fingernails are long and jagged. He also has dark and abundant hair, but he's also half bald. He wears a stocky tunic consisting of black on the right and cream on the left with both an eggplant animal pelt brim and cuffs, an eggplant pelt sash, and a fluffy gray pelt scarf with timberwolf stripes. He only dons a black glove on his left hand, presumably for his falcon. He also sports gray trousers and a pair of black boots with gray linings. On occasion, he wears a black hood with a fluffy gray trimming.
Expert Combatant: Shan Yu is a hardened fighter and a lethal combatant, armed or not. This is shown where he overpowers Li Shang in a fight, though far from easy.
Superhuman Strength: He possesses massive, possibly even super-human strength. He can break down a barricaded door with minimal effort, climb and smash through a rooftop with ease, and simply slice three massive pillars to shreds with his sword.
Superhuman Endurance: Besides his strength, he also possessed a superhuman amount of endurance, having survived being buried in an avalanche for what is implied to have been hours with no apparent ill effects, something that only 5 other Huns managed to survive.
Expert Tracker & Survivalist: He is a skilled tracker and survivalist, being able to deduce a doll delivered to him by his falcon came from a village in a nearby mountain pass where imperial armies awaited him using only a few subtle clues found on the doll (white horse hair from an imperial stallion, black pine which grows in the mountains, and the smell of sulfur from a cannon).
Master Strategist: His leadership is matched by his cunning intellect. In addition to having the idea to scale the seemingly-impenetrable Great Wall with grappling hooks, he was able to infiltrate the Imperial Palace and kidnap the Emperor of China with only five remaining Huns. However, he is not without equal, as his strategic skills and cunning are rivaled by Mulan's.
Honed Senses: When he was riding with his army, he was able to detect the presence of nearby Imperial Scouts and stopped immediately, ordering his men to root them out.
Pathological Indomitable Will: Shan Yu possesses an obliviousness to danger that makes him invulnerable to fear and intimidation, with nothing capable of controlling him. Hence, Shan Yu does not fear death and will even threaten his own life to achieve his goal or make a point. He allowed someone to light the forges and let China know he was there, razed a city, battled the entire Chinese army and possibly murdered General Li, sent his entire army after Li Shang, and infiltrated the Palace, all without any fear of failing or dying in his attempts. Even when disarmed of his sword by Mulan and learning that Mushu not only has a massive rocket aimed at him, but had just lit it, he nonetheless makes a final attempt at killing Mulan bare-handed without any trace of fear holding him back, even yelling a warlord yell just before rushing at her. Madam Mim and possibly Maleficent are the only Disney Villains to potentially out-rival his pathological indomitable will.
Stealth: Although he prefers to directly confront the enemy head-on, he is nevertheless perfectly capable of utilizing stealth if necessary. This was implied by his infiltrating the Imperial City and presumably avoiding contact with anyone until revealing himself on the palace rooftop via Hayabusa retrieving his sword, and eventually confirmed when he burst through the roof behind Mulan and catching her slightly off-guard.
The film's opening scene depicts Shan Yu leading the Huns in an invasion of China by using grappling hooks to scale the Great Wall of China, setting the tone of the film. When one of the Chinese guards of the Great Wall reveals that he has lit the torches and that the Emperor will soon know of Shan Yu's presence in an attempt to intimidate him, Shan Yu's only response is to burn one of the Imperial flags before giving a satisfied "perfect," revealing that the Emperor receiving the message of the Huns' invasion is precisely what Shan Yu has intended to accomplish.
Later on, Shan Yu and his men have destroyed yet another village and proceed to expose two spies sent by the Emperor. One of them insists the Emperor will stop Shan Yu, only for him to rebuff the scout before telling them to pass a message to the Emperor to send his strongest armies. As the two men leave, he has one of his archers murder one.
While heading to the Imperial city, his falcon brings him a doll from a village. On the doll are pine dust from the high mountains, white horsehair from Imperial stallions, and the smell of sulfur from cannons, clues that the Imperial army is waiting for them at a mountain pass. Instead of avoiding the army, he and his men head in that direction, since the quickest way to the Emperor is through the pass. Upon arrival, he and his troops not only crush General Li's army at the mountain pass but also, in an act of fierce barbarity, raze the surrounding village to the ground, leaving no survivors.
Ironically, the army's winning streak is lost when they encounter Li Shang's meager force. Soon after the destruction of the main Chinese army, the group uses cannons to hold their own against Hun archers after Mushu has accidentally ignited a cannon, giving away their position to the enemy (however it's possible the archers had already spotted them without Mushu's blunder). Eventually, Shan Yu leads the Hun cavalry down to the army to attack. Though the Huns vastly outnumber Shang's troops, Mulan manages to bury them in an avalanche by aiming a rocket at a nearby mountain. Upon noticing the intention, Shan Yu then slashes her, which eventually causes her identity to be revealed. Shan Yu nearly escapes but, like his men, he is buried by the avalanche. Despite this, he survives, and upon unearthing himself from the snow pile, Shan Yu learns that his army has been destroyed and lets out a cry of rage. Just then, five other Huns break out from the snow as well, and Shan Yu quickly decides that his five remaining Huns will be enough to capture the Emperor as long as they use stealth.
With the advantage of being believed to be dead and defeated, Shan Yu is able to infiltrate the Emperor's palace and hide on the rooftops where he receives his sword from Hayabusa, who has quickly snatched it back from Shang. On the ground, his Elite Huns capture the Emperor during the victory ceremony by disguising themselves as dragon dancers.
After ordering his Elite Huns to guard the door, Shan Yu tries but fails to convince the Emperor to kneel before him. Just as Shan Yu moves to strike the Emperor down, Shang stops him and Chien-Po carries the Emperor to safety. Shan Yu then overpowers Shang and is about to take his anger out on the defenseless captain, only to be distracted by Mulan, who reveals to him that she is the soldier who caused the avalanche. Abandoning Shang in favor of disposing of a more dangerous target, Shan Yu attempts to kill Mulan while pursuing her throughout the palace until they arrive at the palace rooftop, where Shan Yu believes he has finally cornered Mulan. But to his surprise, Mulan disarms him using only a fan, which he then stabs with the sword, stating she may be out of ideas. But not quite, as she grabs back the stabbed fan and the sword, and Shan Yu then spots Mushu with a rocket aimed at him before he attacks Mulan once more, only for her to knock him over. Mulan then pins him to the roof with his own sword as Mushu launches the rocket (lit by Cri-Kee) that slams into Shan Yu and propels him into a tower full of fireworks, killing him in the explosion.
Despite Shan Yu not making a full appearance in the second film (due to having been killed), Mushu alludes to his demise at least once.
In House of Mouse, Shan Yu makes several minor cameo appearances. His most notable is in "Gone Goofy" where he, Jafar, and Hades are seen talking with Mortimer Mouse and making bets. When Mickey announced that he was quitting, Mortimer told the other villains that he knew that Mickey wouldn't last and to pay up. In "The Mouse Who Came to Dinner", Shan Yu was among the villains that Daisy Duck told to leave their table because it was reserved for "someone important".
Shan Yu appears in Kingdom Hearts II as the main antagonist of The Land of Dragons. Instead of Huns, he possesses an army of Heartless at his command. The plot of the world follows the movie faithfully as it could. The main differences are that he hardly spoke and that unlike in the movie, he is defeated in battle at the palace gates. However it is unknown if he actually dies like in the movie or if he simply collapsed from his injuries and was arrested and imprisoned offscreen.
Shan Yu first appears at the beginning of the world with his falcon, Hayabusa. He had burned down a village and was standing in the ruins, smiling about the destruction he had caused.
He is next seen by Mushu walking into a cave outside the village Sora, Mulan, Donald, and Goofy are in. In order to prove herself to Captain Li Shang, Mulan enters the cave followed by the others. However, it is actually a trap. While the heroes are trapped in the cave battling Heartless, Shan Yu attacks the village, burning it, scaring off the villagers(or possibly killed them)and turning some of the soldiers into Heartless while subtly having some of them work as sleeper agents.
Once the party sees the destruction, they charge to the summit of the mountain to encounter the Hun. Although he does charges with a mass army of Heartless, Sora and company destroy most of them and Mulan's quick thinking sends Shan Yu and the rest of the Heartless over the edge of a ridge in an avalanche.
After surviving the avalanche as in the movie, Shan Yu attacks the Imperial Palace and distracts Sora with a group of Captain Shang's soldiers, who are actually Heartless. He is defeated by Sora, Donald, Goofy, and Mulan in a climactic battle. After his defeat, Sora receives the Hidden DragonKeyblade. His sword serves as the object needed to open the Land of Dragon's "Gate".
In the Manga adaptation of Kingdom Hearts II, Shan Yu was revealed to be working for Organization XIII and tasked with killing the Emperor and conquering the Land of the Dragons. However, when he was defeated by Sora and company, he ended up sniped by Xigbar as punishment for his failure.
In the current fireworks show, Happily Ever After, Shan Yu was the first villain to appear after the Emperor said his quote about the flower that blooms in adversity from the first film (which he told Shang to encourage him to follow after Mulan), which starts the Adversity sequence where the Disney villains invade Cinderella Castle and fight the heroes.
According to the writers, the reason why they decided to kill Shan Yu in the manner they did was that they wanted to avoid the typical "fall to the death" cliche that befell most Disney villains.
Considering the setting and their point of origin, Shan Yu and his Hun Army could, in fact, be members of the Xiongnu people, Tuco-Mongol tribes who lived in the lands north of the Great Wall and conquered much of the Central Asia steppe in the 3rd-1st centuries BC. It is thought by many that the Huns that invaded Europe around 375 AD are descendants of those Western Xiongnu who were evicted by the Chinese in what is now Turkmenistan.
This is further supported by Shan-Yu's name, as a "Shanyu" or "Chanyu" was what the Xiongnu leaders were called, much like a Mongol leader would be "Khan."
Shan Yu's black eyes may be a procedure known as scleral tattooing, in which tattoo ink is injected into the whites of the eye. This procedure is traditionally done in certain cultures and is still sometimes practiced today.
Alternatively it could possibly be to do with a deleted scene where he was originally intended to have the magic ability to see through Hayabusa's eyes. If this is the case then it's possible that Shan Yu may still possess this ability only he simply chose to not use it during the movie's events or he used it off screen.
Unlike most characters in the film, Shan Yu does not underestimate women. He also, unlike Chi-Fu, does not silence and belittle Mulan when they converse with each other before his death. When Mulan reveals that she caused the avalanche and came up with the idea to save the Emperor, Shan Yu instantly acknowledges that she is both responsible and a far greater threat to him than Li Shang as he abandons him in favor of killing Mulan.
This is likely because it's believed that the Huns allowed women to serve in their military, many of the worst war crimes being caused by such women.
It could also be because he lost many of his men because of Mulan and she ruined his plans to conquer China.
Strangely in Cinderella's Surprise Celebration he does call Mulan a weak female, however this could just be due to a lack of research on his character by the people who wrote the script for the play and the play is likely to be non-canon to the movie anyway.
Shan Yu is the only human character in the first film, apart from Mulan, to be aware of Mushu's existence, even though he did not live to tell about it.
Although Ling also saw Mushu but he mistook and confused him for a snake after Mushu bit him in the water.
Shan Yu probably has the largest on-screen kill count of any other Disney Villain, and one of the few to commit infanticide, albeit off-screen.
He is one of the few Disney Villains who does not sing or have his own musical number. However, he has a recurring instrumental theme that is heard throughout his appearances in the film.
Shan Yu was inspired by the real-life Attila the Hun. Though while Shan Yu died by the hands of fireworks, Attila died by choking on his own blood the night he was to be wed to his future wife, Ildico.
He is also possibly partly based on Genghis Khan and Modu Chanyu, the latter being the founder of the Xiongnu empire who united the Xiongnu tribes.
While Shan Yu was described as the leader of the Huns, this is a historical misconception; the Xiongnu were the tribal raiders that attacked China during the age of Mulan. The misconception comes from the fact that both Huns and Xiongnu originated from the Eurasian Steppe and shared many cultural and militaristic similarities.
However the Chinese dubs of Mulan do call them Xiongnu instead of Huns. This is likely because the Huns are more historically well known outside of China and the Xiongnu are more historically well known in China. It is also likely because the word "Hun" is an easier word to use and understand for the English audience as "Xiongnu" would be more difficult to pronounce.
There is also the belief that the Huns are descendants of Xiongnu after they fled to the West. While it has not been fully proven yet this is likely another reason as to why they were called Huns in the movie.
Although Shan Yu is the main villain, he has only around six minutes of screen time.
Shan Yu was originally intended to return in Mulan II in an earlier story treatment written by Barry Cook, where he and his deceased army, all ghosts now, would have started to haunt Northern China, prompting the Emperor to send Mulan and Shang there. The finale would have involved Shan Yu's ghost army fighting against Mulan and her allies, including the Fa Family Ancestors.
An early version of the storyboard for the opening scene has Shan Yu being called "Shang-Yu". It is unknown if this is an error or if he was originally intended to be called that before his name was changed. The same deleted scene also does not show Shan Yu's reaction to the torches being lit, leaving it ambiguous as to whether he intended for the torches to be lit (unlike in the film, where it was made clear such had been exactly his intent).
According to his concept art Shan Yu is 6 and a half heads tall.
One piece of concept art drawn by Pres Romanillos shows that Shan Yu actually has an official child form of himself, however this child version of him has never been officially used in any official Disney media.
Despite not having his army of Huns in Kingdom Hearts II, Mushu still referred to Shan Yu as the leader of the Hun army.
Shan Yu is considered one of the darkest, merciless, ruthless, and most evil villains ever in Disney movies.
Shan Yu also suffers one of the most brutal and graphic deaths as he is exploded by fireworks onscreen.
For most of the movie Shan Yu holds his sword in his ungloved right hand, however for a brief moment during his pursuit of Mulan when he manages to break through the door and right before he chops down the first wooden pillar he is seen holding the sword in his left gloved hand before switching back to his right one. This could possibly mean he is ambidextrous.